Sunday, September 18, 2016

Trio (Jannis Kounellis, Arnulf Rainer, Antoni Tàpies) @ Galerie Lelong

Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 2014
As I wait for the big autumn exhibitions to open in Paris I have been going around some of the smaller galleries, and my pick for the weekend is the small, and sumptuous Trio at Galerie Lelong. It’s an interesting choice to call Arnulf Rainer, Jannis Kounellis and Antoni Tàpies a trio. That said, my one reservation about the exhibition is not always obvious connections between the work of Kounellis and Tàpies, and that of Rainer’s aggressive and dramatic paintings. While both Tàpies and Kounellis are concerned with history and the grand moments that make life painful and require starting again, Rainer’s work is more concerned with himself, the tormented artist. But this is a small disappointment in an otherwise provocative installation.
Antoni Tàpies, Cadira,1983
On the left as we enter the first room, the first striking piece is an untitled work by Kounellis in which ink stained cloth is hung over a steel support. It sets the tone of the exhibition. As in this first piece, the exhibition is bathed in sadness, anger, violence and the residue of trauma. When Kounellis applies paint or ink to cloth or canvas and then places the stained fabric over steel, the steel is softened to the point where it becomes a witness to heartache. And yet, the steel also retains its danger and resilience when the fabric is read like a bandage, the dripping ink interchangeable with blood covering the inflexible steel support.
Antoni Tàpies, Quatre Draps, 1997
The wornness of the materials in exhibition overall i evoke a sadness and melancholy. We see in Tàpies’ Cadira (1983), something like a chair that sits on a pedestal in the middle of the first room. The sense of charred material, incised with a tool, the reminiscence of decay made me imagine the fire or the blast through which this chair has survived. And on Quatre draps (1997), four frayed pieces of fabric that mark the edges of the wooden support covered in what looks like dirt have been attached such that they could be the tape that will turn the front side of the painting into its backside to be put against the wall. We feel the unvisualizeable on the face of the image we do not see. Surrounding the four fragments of fabric, the thick reddy brown surface of mixed media becomes old and ambivalent.
Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 2014 Installation View
There are always a lot of visual and conceptual associations when looking at Kounellis’ work. The pieces are about art, about trauma, and history, they are about the coming together of art and industry. In a very provocative piece, hessian bags of coal encircle a mound of broken plaster casts of faces and scrunched up newspapers on the floor in the second room. Because Kounellis is as interested in the fabrics of construction as he is in the fabrics of art, this piece invites us to imagine the pain and vulnerability of miners down the shaft in search of these materials that are supposedly in the interests of human comfort and the ease of human life. The piece which resembles the fragments collected by someone after the fact, reeks of hardship, disasters and a trauma that cannot be spoken of.
Installation View with Kounellis' three Untitled, 2014 on the back wall

In my favorite piece/s in Trio, three Untitled Kounellis works from 2014 occupy the farthest wall of the gallery. They are titled and documented as three separate pieces, but it’s impossible not to see them as a triptych hung side by side. Their variations are significant, but their principles are related. Thick black paint is drawn across a white canvas that is mounted on steel. Steel girders, some rusted, some coated are placed on or near the edge of each canvas, once again, reminding us of the inseparability of the material of construction and that of art. And, in all three images, we see Kounellis push both steel beyond its definition as an intransigent material of modern rationalization, and painting as the object of beauty. In the three panels, art and industry bleed into each other, and in turn, with a history of art in which the altarpiece has related the redemptive mysteries of faith. Together with their complex materiality, their multiple symbolic meanings, make these three pieces irresistible.  

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Andreas Gursky: nicht abstrakt @ Kunstsammlung NRW K20

Andreas Gursky, Rückblick, 2015
It’s difficult to find something new to say about a photographer like Gursky whose work has been so written about. And I am not convinced that I have much to say that I haven’t already said about his work. But neither can I resist the opportunity to mark the occasion of my first experience of Gursky’s work in his adopted town of Düsseldorf. Because I have seen Gursky’s work so often, I was interested in the crowd at Grabbeplatz and their responses to the work.

Andreas Gursky, Amazon, 2016
Andreas Gursky – nicht abstrakt is, as always, a treat. It’s a treat because in spite of its relatively small number of photographs, there are some old favorites, some brand new works, and others that have been re-printed in a different format or different dimensions. So my first reassurance was to note that this is a body of work that is constantly changing. I was also delighted to see how challenged the viewers around me were. They looked a distance, stood up close, asked each other what exactly they were looking at, tried to find human figures and in general, make sense of the image. How did he do that? And before an image of the Amazon (2016), they realized their own consumerist desires were being examined in the photograph. I was heartened by their engagement and their constant questions.

Viewing Amazon, 2016

I saw Rückblick (2015) for the first time and was immediately impressed by its layers of complexity. The enormous photograph shows the heads of Germany’s four living chancellors‑Gerhard Schröder, Helmut Kohl, Angela Merkel and Helmut Schmidt--along the lower edge, sitting before Barnett Newman’s 1950–51 painting Vir Heroicus Sublimis, Newman’s painting overwhelms Gursky’s image and the figures of the Chancellors, just as it was intended to overwhelm its viewers in 1950-51 when it was first exhibited at MoMA. The possible interpretations of Gursky’s photograph are endless: Newman’s reference to “Man, heroic, sublime” in the title of his painting, or his use of red taken out of context as a strategy to strip away the social constructions and connotations of the Latin meaning of the title (and the power of the four figures), might be the point. Alternatively, Newman’s paintings have a reputation and a legacy in Germany since Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV (1969-70) was attacked soon after it was bought by the German government in 1982. The culprit claimed it was a rip on the German flag and therefore, thanks to its title, deliberately provocative.

Andreas Gursky, Untitled VI, 1997

And then, we can turn to Gursky’s photograph in which these significances become further complicated by the history of the Rückenfigur in German art, photography, and film. The Rückenfigur supposedly overlooks a vast landscape and as viewers we are invited to fall into this re-created space with the viewer in the image. Of course, this becomes ironic when the Rückenfiguren in Gursky’s photograph sit before a Barnett Newman painting. Because it is clearly a painting within a photograph, there is nowhere to fall into, to overlook, to create. In a gesture which could likewise be interpreted in a number of different ways, the right “panel” of the painting, and perhaps the photograph, is joined to the rest of the image with black tape. The tape both repeats the zip for which Newman is famous and which maintains the viewer’s eye on the surface of the painting (and here the photograph). In addition, it isolates Helmut Kohl from the other figures which may be read as a political statement. It reminds us that we are seeing a photograph of a photograph of a painting, that the image exists nowhere but in the image before us, under glass in the Museum. And because the photograph hangs next to Untitled VI (1997), a reproduction of Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, (1950), we immediately ask questions about authenticity, reproduction, the absence of originals, the value of the photograph as art work, the role of the museum and the artmarket in all of these as they are played out in exhibitions of photography like the one we are seeing.

Andreas Gursky, Les Mées, 2016

I focus on this one photograph in the Andreas Gursky – nicht abstrakt exhibition to illustrate a point. Recently, Gursky has been criticized for trivializing the pursuit of photography, making his images bigger and slicker and with this, the claim is that they have become more superficial and less relevant to the image world in which we now move. However, even if they were bourgeois intellectuals, students and tourists, the visitors who I shared the gallery spaces with were so intrigued by the playfulness, the complexity, ambiguity and impossibility of the images that Gursky created. Which is to say, Gursky may not be saying anything about photography (though I would argue contrary to the critics that he is) but his preoccupations with the role of the image in all its manifestations are as culturally relevant as anyone else working in the medium today.

Images courtesy Sprüth Magers/the Artist

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Beat Generation @ Centre Pompidou

Bruce Baillie, Castro Street, 1966
The real joy of this exhibition, and in my mind, the main reason to go, are the rarely screened films. The exhibition includes lots of photographs of Kerouac, Ginsburg, Burroughs, Corso and all sorts of other characters, there’s the original typescript of On the Road laid out down the centre of the first rooms, a handful of Burroughs machines, a sampling of Frank’s The Americans, and other treats. But it’s the opportunity to see, for example, two of Bruce Conner’s never screened films, Looking for Mushrooms (1962) and Crossroads (1976) that make the exhibition exciting. Even films that are available such as Bruce Baillie’s Castro Street are so rarely screened, and it’s a treat to see them in large format. Even if they are shown on DVD, as opposed to projected, they are absorbing viewing. I also loved the anonymous footage of Vietnam War protests in New York City for its examples of early video. The colour is unlike anything we would see today. And films by Christopher MacLean, Burroughs, Bruce Baillie make great viewing.

Beat Generation exhibition view
Kerouac's On the Road laid out in the middle

I also have to admit that even though I loved seeing these films, many of them are not Beat Generation films. Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s Pull My Daisy (1959), and the collaborations made with Antony Balch for The Cut Ups (1966), and maybe a couple of others can be seen as Beat films-including Ron Rice’s Chumlum (1964) and other films, and Harry Smith’s great experiments-- but many of the others screening in Gallery One are not. The late 50s and early 60s was an incredibly furtive moment in American filmmaking, so there were lots of filmmakers and artists making films at the time, experimenting with the medium, doing wild and wacky things. But Stan Brakhage, Bruce Baillie and Bruce Conner for example are not Beat filmmakers.
Kerouac Paraphernalia ... is this really that interesting?
Which leads to what for me was the biggest problem with the exhibition. It uses images of all kinds—photos, films, paintings, graphic art, drawings as documents to exhibit social and cultural and political beliefs. There is no attention to the artistic value of some of these documents. The whole point of the Beat Generation was that they challenged the social and political domain through experimentation in form and aesthetic of their chosen media. Moreover, for the filmmakers such as Smith and Rice, they weren’t just tripping out on drugs and making their experience into films, but their films contain a highly sophisticated philosophy regarding around the use of experimental film (as opposed to other media). The critical ways that these artists manipulated form and aesthetic is completely lost in this exhibition. Similarly, the exquisite use of the camera by Robert Frank in The Americans or even by Burroughs in his never-exhibited photographs is completely lost here. These guys changed art in a way that Duchamp had forty years before them, and because there is no discussion of the aesthetic, there’s no way of knowing the influence and impact they had.
Unknown Photographer, Burroughs in the Villa Mouniria Garden, Tangiers. 
I am always irritated by these exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou because of the conventional mainstream vision they offer of a movement such as the Beat Generation. A visitor to this exhibition could well come away with the belief that there were no women, at all, working in this time. From what the exhibition tells us, if women existed in this world, they did so as accessories to the men’s genius. The only relationships that are given significance as having a formative influence on the writers and artists are their gay male lovers. There were in fact a whole host of women who were producing and collaborating and inspiring these works, but they are not shown here.
Harry Smith

Lastly, the all-over-the-place nature of the exhibition really dilutes the power of what the Beats were doing. Rather than going for the all out summer exhibition bonanza, I would have liked something that was more sensitive to the relationship between all these different movements, art works, artists, art forms and a much more nuanced placement of the movement vis-à-vis political and historical events. It is true that footage of the Vietnam War, for example, is gorgeous, and yes, it’s going on at the same time as the Beats develop their ideas and work, but more information on their actual engagement with it would have been more satisfying the events as something like background scenery.